Thursday, May 11, 2006

Birnbaum interviews David Mitchell

at The Morning News. It's a fascinating & quite revealing interview, go take a look if you're still trying to work out what you think about Mitchell's fiction. He says one thing I completely disagree with, and that actually helps me articulate an aspect of my own (relative) lack of sympathy for his fictional practice:

I think all novels are actually compounded short stories. It’s just the borders get so porous and so squished up that you no longer see them, but I think they are there. And I do structure my novels in that way. One of the commandments of Black Swan Green was to write a novel made of chapters that are theoretically extractable short stories.

All novels are not actually compounded short stories! In fact I feel that the texture of the short story and the novel are both in theory and in practice almost always quite different; Joyce Carol Oates is an interesting writer to look at in this respect, and a perceptive commenter on such differences as well. But Jonathan Lethem could do you just as well--he writes great short stories and great novels & they're quite different from each other in terms of the texture of the language, the pacing and so forth. I am out of sympathy with something about much or even most short fiction (I think it's related to the fact of being a fast reader); I do now & then read a collection of stories that makes sense to me (I really, really liked Nathan Englander's a few years ago for instance; and of course the short stories of Chekhov, James, etc. etc.), but I find the appeal of the novel quite different and (for me personally) much more powerful. It's partly a question of momentum, and that's what Black Swan Green lacks--a good sense of where it's going. Even if you prefer, as I do, character- and voice-driven fiction to plot-driven, it matters that there should be a destination, and that the momentum should be built up over several hundred pages.

One other moment in the conversation confirmed my existing impression (Birnbaum, it is possible I am being quite unfair to your interviewee, and you must correct me in the comments if Mitchell was actually, oh, I don't know, making silly hand gestures and a funny face to show that he was making fun of himself) that Birnbaum has a better sense of humor than Mitchell:

RB: So sitting here in your youthful late 30s, you have scoped ahead in your life to think that your writing is—everyone says they can’t do anything else.

DM: No I really can’t. I know everyone else says “I really can’t do anything else” as well, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

RB: Everybody doesn’t say that. Is it hard for you?

DM: No. Yes and no. No, in that nothing is more fulfilling. Maybe I enjoy sex more. But that only lasts for an hour or so.

RB: Good for you.

"Maybe I enjoy sex more. But that only lasts for an hour or so": it's like those tips they have in management self-help books for job interviews ("What's your biggest weakness?" "I'm a workaholic and perfectionist, and I become obsessive about doing everything to a very high standard"). I am completely shuddering in horror when I read this! However I expect I am being quite unfair....


  1. I think you are very right about momentum, which I doubt can be created by a complex architecture alone, though something like a dynamic structure can support momentum. Perhaps there is a parallel here to music (opera, symphony etc.), and in fact the current trend of playing only single movements of a symphony or a concerto make it ever more difficult for a listener to understand and appreciate the relevant forms. However, I need to be careful; I'm not knowledgeable enough to make a proper comparison.

    As to texture of language, it would be interesting to know exactly what you mean - or better perhaps, to compare passages from short stories and novels by the same author that illustrate what you mean. Have you got anything available offhand?

    And which essay(s) by Joyce Carol Oates do you recommend for her views on this?

  2. Whoops. Trigger finger: 'makes it ever more...' Sorry!

  3. Well, I do think David perhaps suffers from an excess of sincerity and earnestness but it's hard to fault him as he is extremely congenial and responsive—meaning that he is listening, paying attention to the conversation. I find that joking around is frequently a way of avoiding questions one doesn't want to answer.

    Did I answer your question?

  4. Yes, thank you! I thought the "Good for you" rejoinder was HILARIOUS, btw.

  5. There's also a nice long audio interview with Mitchell available at this link (via Bookslut):

    The podcast confirms Birnbaum's comment: Mitchell comes across as a genuinely sincere and thoughtful - in all senses of the word - person, something that is not always easy to find in those who have attained his level of success and renown.